MANILA – “Difficult” was how “Linda,” a public school teacher from Quezon City, described the current academic year, which saw Philippine schools shift to distance learning after in-person classes were banned due to COVID-19. The word came up multiple times as she recounted her experiences at work.
Linda, 49, said she feels like she is on call the entire day, attending to queries of students and parents even at ungodly hours, unlike before when it felt like teachers were relieved of their duties after work hours.
“Ang hirap kasi hindi katulad dati, noon na face-to-face, na after mong magturo sa mga bata, tapos na ‘yong responsibility mo sa kanila… ‘Di katulad ngayon, parang 24 hours,” she said.
(It’s difficult because it’s not like before, when there was face-to-face classes, after you teach the children, you’re finished with your responsibilities to them… unlike now, it feels like you’re at work for 24 hours.)
Linda also said distance learning does not seem to be effective for children without adults to guide them in their studies at home, recounting how some of her first grade students still found it difficult to read.
But Linda and her young pupils are not the only ones having difficulties with the new setup. Grade 12 student Marl Mora also said he experiences challenges that hinder him from fully absorbing his lessons.
“Kaunti lang ‘yong natutunan…. Kapag magre-rely sa module lang, kaunti lang talaga ‘yong matututunan. Kapag puro search [sa internet] naman, mas madali siyang nakakalimutan,” he said.
(I don’t learn a lot… If you rely on modules alone, you won’t really learn much. If you rely on internet searches, you easily forget what you are supposed to learn.)
“Sa internet, minsan unstable and nawawala. Hindi makapag-connect sa class kaya minsan naiiwan,” he added.
(Sometimes our internet is unstable and sometimes we lose connection. We can’t connect to the class so we are left behind.)
Mora also helps earn money for his family by selling vegetables, which he said was stressful since he juggles it with his studies.
“Mahirap kumita ng pera kaya dagdag-pagod. Namamalengke kami every other day ng madaling araw, mga 3 or 4 a.m. kaya halos laging puyat tapos sasabayan pa ng modules na maraming gawain kaya medyo masakit sa ulo,” he said.
(It’s hard to earn money so it’s more exhausting. We go to the market every other day, around 3 or 4 a.m. so I don’t get enough sleep. Along with that, I have to answer modules so it’s a bit of a headache.)
Because of these experiences, both Linda and Mora said that they are in favor of limited face-to-face classes.
“Hindi pa rin kasi mapapalitan ang experience and ang knowledge na matutunan kapag face-to-face learning. Kahit na half day or half lang ng classes,” Mora said.
(You can’t replace the experience and knowledge that you learn when there’s face-to-face classes. They should allow even half-day classes or half of the class to attend.)
“At least ‘yong mga bata, magkaroon din ng communication sa teacher nila kasi lalo na ang primary grade, kailangan hands on ‘yong teacher sa bata,” said Linda.
(At least the children could communicate with their teacher, especially those in the primary grade. Teachers need to be hands on with children.)
Calls for the safe reopening of schools have been growing, a year since government prohibited in-person classes. It remains unknown, however, when face-to-face instruction would continue, especially since President Rodrigo Duterte remained reluctant to send students back to classrooms.
Duterte earlier said he would only allow in-person classes once COVID-19 vaccines become available in the country.
But during the arrival of the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines from China last Feb. 28, Duterte said he would still not allow physical classes.
“I cannot make that decision. It will place the children in jeopardy… I am not ready to lose the lives of our young people,” Duterte said.
Prior to this, Duterte gave the green light for a dry run of limited in-person classes, acknowledging that the distance learning set up was “far from ideal.” He later cancelled this due to the concerns with the more infectious SARS-CoV-2 variant from the United Kingdom.
Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles had said Duterte could reconsider authorizing the pilot test for face-to-face classes once the country has rolled out 2 million COVID-19 vaccines, even though United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) does not recommend vaccination as a “prerequisite” for the reopening of schools.
Need for in-person classes
The DepEd, which is pushing for the gradual resumption of in-person classes, saw the need for face-to-face instruction to address the challenges in distance learning, such as uneven access to technology and students’ difficulty in self-learning.
A nationwide online survey conducted by the Movement for Safe, Equitable, Quality, and Relevant Education found that a majority of teachers “do not think or are not confident that the competencies set by the Department of Education under distance learning are actually being developed.”
Several lawmakers and groups have also called for the safe reopening of schools. The Senate, last March 2, passed a resolution recommending the conduct of in-person classes where there are few to zero COVID-19 cases.
The Philippines is the only country in the Asia-Pacific region that has yet to reopen schools, even on a limited scale to complement distance learning modalities.
John Andrew Camposano of the Philippine Pediatric Society warned that “one year of school closure would be equivalent to 2 years of learning loss.”
“In the long term, there is also an increased risk of disengagement or dropouts, there is a decrease in motivation to learn. Some children may not return to school,” Camposano said in a Senate hearing last Feb. 24.
Philippine Business for Education Executive Director Love Basillote said prolonged school closure might lead to heavier losses for the country’s economy.
Those who dropped out from school in 2020 may have difficulty landing jobs since companies would look for candidates with credentials and specific skill sets, she said.
Over 26.6 million students registered in basic education for School Year 2020-2021, based on DepEd data last Jan. 15, down by around a million from the previous year.
Education Secretary Leonor Briones had said the department was ready to hold the dry run of in-person classes “any time that the president says go.”
Schools as a refuge for the abused
Aside from learning, schools also serve as safe havens for children experiencing violence in their homes, said Behzad Noubary, deputy representative of UNICEF in the Philippines.
“Schools beyond being a place of learning for children also serve as a place for socialization… As well as a refuge for children who may be experiencing physical or psychological violence outside of the school,” he said.
Experts have also said the pandemic has put children’s social development at risk since they lost opportunities to bond with other kids.
In higher education, Duterte has allowed in-person classes for select medical courses in areas with low quarantine restriction levels to ensure that the country had enough health frontliners during the pandemic.
As of writing, the country has recorded 631,320 COVID-19 cases as it also faced a surge in infections.
– With reports from Arra Perez, Jamaine Punzalan, and Sherrie Ann Torres, ABS-CBN News